Under normal circumstances, Lady Gaga’s booking as the headliner of the Super Bowl halftime show Feb. 5 in Houston would be a bit of unambiguous good fortune for her. She was coming off a stretch of her career in which, with well-received performances at the 2015 and 2016 Oscars and 2016 Super Bowl pre-show, she’d proven herself surprisingly adept at fitting old-school showmanship into familiar frameworks. Recent halftime headliners like Coldplay, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars and Beyoncé all used the platform to promote both their music and their respective star personae. So it’s safe to assume a full-length set at America’s most-watched television event might help reignite public interest in Gaga’s act.
But the Super Bowl is hardly taking place under normal circumstances. As acceptance speeches at the Golden Globes and—particularly—the Screen Actors Guild Awards made clear, live television entertainment events come freighted with strange and difficult-to-meet expectations. The pace of news developments during the Trump era and the sense that protests of a scale without recent precedent are endless, make it clear a substantial portion of the viewership is grappling with deep, existential concerns. Even the most earnestly meant political gestures can have the tendency to seem self-serving, as when Emma Stone capped off a SAG Awards full of pro-refugee messaging by attempting, to little avail, to link her film La La Land to a legacy of Hollywood reflecting society.
And yet the Super Bowl, with its stadium setting, its placement in the midst of high-profile athletics and advertising, and its 100-million-plus viewership, is the most impersonal of TV venues. Shows that have succeeded in the past have done so on the back of virtuosic musical ambition (Beyoncé) or outsized spectacle (Perry). Political messaging—as in 2011, when will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas addressed a verse of “Where is the Love” to President Obama, or in 2012, when Madonna ended her show with a call for #worldpeace—seemed grasping at best.
The only recent exception came last year, when Beyoncé transmitted a clear message by dressing her dancers in Black Panther regalia, a delicious bit of homage and provocation. But Lady Gaga is not Beyoncé.
Over the years, Lady Gaga’s messaging—even at its most deeply felt—has tended toward theater-kid obviousness. At the Oscars last year, she paid tribute to victims of sexual assault. One of her biggest hits, “Born This Way,” is a tribute to the LGBT community. And yet, both of these were fairly broad and inclusive. Gaga’s never quite gone for social commentary that lacks a generic uplift. She’s more like erstwhile chart rival Perry than she might like to admit.
Not that she’ll necessarily get a chance to make a political statement this year. Following the controversy over Beyoncé’s message (perceived on the political right as anti-cop), Gaga has been given a show whose organizers want to play it safe. While the NFL has denied that it explicitly told her to avoid political subjects, its spokesperson Natalie Ravitz’s statement speaks for itself: “Everyone we work with understands this is a moment for families across America and the world to come together for a great experience. Lady Gaga understands that and we know she will deliver an incredible performance yet again.” It’s forecast to be a warm night in Houston. Where’d this chill come from?
The singer went on to do a Fox Sports interview wearing an NFL T-shirt and announced “I really respect the athletes.” This is not the firebrand her fans have been waiting for. Gaga has said little about the booking, although she’s expressed a desire to “put together the best show for the football fans, the ones that are watching at home.” She also announced a partnership with luxury brand Tiffany that is to include an ad during the big game. This isn’t exactly the preamble of someone planning subversion (that tends to mix poorly with commercial “synergy).
The argument goes that it’s an artist’s duty to speak out. And Gaga—who campaigned for Hillary Clinton, released a rare explicitly political song (about the killing of Trayvon Martin) on her last album, and protested outside Trump Tower after Trump’s win—has not lately been shy. But she’s running up against various other duties, including the ones she owes a broadcast that doesn’t grant unfettered creative control. She’s historically been willing to bend pop’s rules but not to outright break them. Her ability to squeeze herself into anything from a charmingly schmaltzy Julie Andrews tribute to a country album will likely serve her well once again Sunday night.
At the year’s biggest party, she’ll probably be the perfect guest, bringing just enough heat to keep us talking until the third quarter begins. Anyone looking for a conversation to last into Monday can look elsewhere.